Mary Lou Jay
As children enter their middle teens, parents worry about finding the right time to trust them with the car keys. Fast forward a few decades, however, and there's a reversal of that situation, with grown children wondering when they'll have to take away their aging parents' driving privileges.
For Americans, driving equals independence, so it's no surprise that older people may be reluctant to give up their cars and rely on others to take them where they need to go. Family members may want to keep their older relatives safe and prevent them from harming anyone else on the road, but parents often resent what they see as their children's unwarranted interference.
More older drivers on the road
Many American families will be having this difficult discussion in the coming years. In 2008, there were 21.6 million licensed drivers older than 70 in the United States, representing 10 percent of all drivers, according to the Federal Highway Administration. But by 2025, drivers over 65 will make up about 20 percent of the driving public, according to AARP.
There's no set age at which a person becomes too old to drive safely. Some people in their early 60s may have physical limitations that make it difficult for them to safely maneuver their cars. Others are mentally and physically capable of driving well into their 80s or 90s.
Older drivers actually are driving more safely these days. Back in 2003, highway experts projected that the number of accidents involving older drivers would greatly increase as the U.S. population ages. But according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), there were 32 percent fewer fatal accidents among people 70 or older in 2009 than there were in 1997. The odds of an older person surviving a crash also have improved.
Families concerned about a loved one's driving ability should watch for the following warning signs, according to AAA and the National Safety Commission:
- Trouble paying attention to signals and road signs.
- Frequent close calls and near-accidents. This could be a sign of a slowed reaction time.
- More traffic tickets or warnings than the driver got in the past.
- More dents on an older driver's vehicle.
- Driving more slowly than the flow of traffic.
- Difficulty navigating or an inability to find a once-familiar destination.
Some states are keeping a closer eye on older drivers. Several have shorter driver's license renewal cycles for drivers over 65 or 70, and many require vision testing for renewals after drivers reach a certain age.
Although there are several national programs designed to improve the driving skills of older Americans, IIHS says it's difficult to tell whether such classes are effective. One reason is that the elderly drivers who take the classes may be the people who would be driving more safely anyway.
What to do
Telling a loved one it's no longer safe for him or her to be behind the wheel is a difficult conversation to have. The National Safety Commission recommends starting an open dialogue in which you discuss with the driver any medical issues that could make driving more difficult. Ride along with the driver and take note of any missed driving violations or confusion.
If getting the driver to hand over the keys isn't an option, attempt to convince him or her that it might be a good idea to drive only during the day and to avoid long trips. Many older drivers already may realize that they need to restrict their driving or stay within a certain radius of home when they get behind the wheel.
The AAA Foundation has a website dedicated to senior drivers that offers driver skill assessments, information about educational programs and suggestions for older Americans who no longer can drive.